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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘All Quiet’ on the big screen, plus Islamic thriller ‘Cairo Conspiracy’ and Christian parable ‘Knock at the Cabin’

M. Night Shyamalan's latest high-concept horror flick hits theaters on Friday, and an Oscar nominee finally gets its Portland premiere.

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Tawfeek Barhom in “The Cairo Conspiracy

Naturally, the great streaming revolution has made it possible to watch pretty much all this year’s Oscar nominees at home. From popular favorite Everything Everywhere All at Once to many of the nominated short films, they’re available on one digital platform or another, and most will be seen by far more viewers at home than in theaters. (The notable exception, of course, is Avatar: The Way of Water.)

This is great for our collective convenience, and for the overall exposure of some of the less mainstream nominees. But, as both of my regular readers know, I’m tortured by the fact that a movie such as Bardo: A Chronicle of Half-Truths demands to be seen in the most immersive environment possible, not on a typical home theater setup or, God forbid, an iPad. (I think the film would have gotten more award-season love if voters hadn’t primarily watched it on Netflix.)

In fact, one of the most-nominated films this year didn’t get a theatrical release in Portland at all. (Even Bardo had a week or two at the Hollywood Theatre.) All Quiet on the Western Front debuted on Netflix in late October, and I said at the time that “[i]t’s a remarkable achievement, and one that should be seen on a big screen.”

Well, maybe there is a cinematic God. Cinema 21 is opening All Quiet on the Western Front this Friday for at least a week-long run, and if at all possible, yours truly will be taking in this stunning WWI epic for a second time during that span. This new adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel of World War I, to quote myself again, “wants to be both the Apocalypse Now and the Saving Private Ryan of World War I cinema, and it gets impressively close to those goals.” It’s graphic and unrelenting in its depiction of the grinding nihilism of that conflict, but at the same time brimming with artistic energy and righteous rage.

Only three foreign-language films have ever been nominated for more Oscars than All Quiet on the Western Front: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Artist; and Roma. So two of the four most-heralded non-English-language movies in history were Netflix releases. The company absolutely deserves credit for providing a platform that allows millions of Americans without access to a decent movie theater the opportunity to see these masterpieces. But maybe this is the start of a trend where, instead of a theatrical release being an advertisement for the at-home version of a film, the reverse can happen. One can always hope. (Opens Friday, Feb. 3, at Cinema 21)

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Although it didn’t make the final cut as a nominee, The Cairo Conspiracy was on the fifteen-film shortlist for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. It also won the Best Screenplay prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Both honors were well-deserved: this cagey political/religious thriller offers a compelling plot, convincing performances, and a look inside a world all-too-hidden from Western eyes.

When Adam (Tawfeek Barhom), the humble son of a village fisherman, gets a scholarship to attend the venerable Al-Azhar University, pinnacle of Sunni Muslim power in Cairo, he never expects to become an unwilling pawn in a power struggle between government and clerical forces over the choice of the institution’s new Grand Imam. But when the current imam dies suddenly, Adam is recruited by a member of Egypt’s internal security forces to infiltrate a cabal of Muslim Brotherhood students at the school.

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Combining the paranoid style of a 1970s Hollywood thriller with an exploration of government corruption and the dangerous appeal of radicalism, The Cairo Conspiracy is legitimately tense and legitimately critical of the cozy relationship between Egypt’s secular and religious authorities. I couldn’t help but think about our own nation’s increasingly thin line between church and state, especially in a film where the appointment of the new imam is especially fraught because it’s a lifetime appointment.

Interestingly, this is the second film to land on my radar in recent months that takes place in a Middle Eastern nation and is directed by someone with roots in that nation, but is technically the product of a Scandinavian country. Holy Spider, one of the best films of the year, was based on real events in Iran, but was a Danish production, while The Cairo Conspiracy’s director, Tarik Saleh, was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and an Egyptian father. (The film itself was mostly shot in Turkey.) In addition to the amazing work being done by Iranian filmmakers such as Jafar Panahi in the country, these efforts by members of the Arabic diaspora help shine a light on conditions in their ancestral homelands. (Opens Friday, Feb. 3, at the Regal Fox Tower.)

An entirely different depiction of the collision between religious dogma and secular concerns unfolds in the latest provocation from (co)writer-and-director M. Night Shyamalan, Knock at the Cabin. Shyamalan’s latest high-concept hijinks involve a quartet of weirdos who arrive without warning at a vacation cabin occupied by two dads (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) and their seven-year-old adopted daughter Nguyen (the adorable Kristen Cui, who might give the best performance in the movie).

Taking this threesome hostage and tying them to chairs, the interlopers (led by Dave Bautista but including Rupert Grint, Abby Quinn, and Nikki Amuka-Bird) declare that they must choose one of their number to sacrifice or the world will literally come to an end. As our heroes predictably resist this cockamamie idea, the quartet starts to commit ritual suicide (Ron Weasley, we hardly knew ye!) while TV reports show various global disasters, including a tsunami at Haystack Rock which proves Shyamalan read that terrifying New Yorker article about the Cascadian Subduction Zone a few years back.

So far, so good. But after ninety minutes of relentless extreme close-ups of Bautista’s screen-filling mug and enough straining at ropes to make Betty Page blush, we’re ready for one of M. Night’s patented twist endings, right? Something we never saw coming that makes us look at everything we’ve seen with new eyes, right?

Alas, this time there’s no there there. The climax of Knock at the Cabin is a morally vacuous nothingburger that manages only to slap a viscous veneer of Old Testament eschatology onto a moderately claustrophobic one-act play. Undoubtedly, now that M3GAN has run its course, this will be the next big off-season genre hit, but unlike that dancing doll, this flick’s got no moves. (Opens Friday, Feb. 3, everywhere.)

A more personal and intimate trauma dominates the quasi-horror flick Baby Ruby, which stars Noémie Merlant (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) as an online influencer who has been chronicling her Instagram-ready pregnancy. Once the baby is born, however, the narrative she has so carefully crafted for her followers and herself starts to unravel as she is plagued by feelings of inadequacy. Her baby seems to hate her, despite protestations to the contrary from her loyal husband (Kit Harrington).

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Baby Ruby is the screenwriting and directing debut of acclaimed playwright Bess Wohl, and while it creates a few moments of genuine terror, it remains a straightforward take on postpartum depression and maternal anxiety. (Opens on Friday, Feb. 3, at Living Room Theaters.)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Nine Muses Law and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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